Nothing sums up 2018 like the fact that Toto’s “Africa” has become our unofficial anthem. It is a song that’s ridiculous by definition — an Eighties ode to Africa by a lot of L.A. rock dudes who’d never set foot in the place. But something about any of it song speaks to your moment. It’s the new “Don’t Stop Believin’” — a mega-cheese classic of Eighties sentiment that’s gotten bizarrely popular in recent years, beloved by hipsters and moms and tone-deaf karaoke singers screaming “I bless the rains down in Africa!” Love it or hate it, you’ve probably heard it today. You’ll hear it tomorrow. This damn song follows you everywhere, like the sound of wild dogs crying out in the night.
Toto’s Africa is just a place that doesn’t exist and never did — this song has nothing related to the continent, if you don’t count that groovy synth-kalimba solo. However the song ends up to be a map of today’s America, which explains why it’s much bigger now than it was in the Eighties. As Toto drummer Jeff Porcaro summed it up, “A white boy is attempting to create a song on Africa, but because he’s never been there, he can only tell what he’s seen on TV or remembers in the past.” The singer is really deep in his feelings, he barely notices where he is—hence the hilarious “whoa dude, there is a mountain” moment when “Kilimanjaro rises like Olympus above the Serengeti.” Needless to freaking say, you can’t see Kilimanjaro from the Serengeti, which is really a couple hundred miles away. Does it matter? The complete point of “Africa” is that you’re nowhere at all.
Weezer just scored their first Hot 100 hit in years with their surprise cover of “Africa,” giving an answer to a widespread online fan petition. Toto returned the favor last month by playing Weezer’s “Hash Pipe” live. “We figured since we were smoking hash since before these were born, this is the one we should do,” guitarist Steve Lukather said onstage. “That is our tribute to Weezer, God bless ‘em.” For years Lukather has played in Ringo Starr’s All-Star Band, meaning that every gig, Ringo is up there drumming to “Africa.” Did any Beatles fan predict the next where Ringo would spend the 21st Century playing “Africa” each night however not “Octopus’s Garden”? Yet that’s what we’ve come to. As a good man once sang, it don’t come easy.
The complete weird history of American culture is in this song somewhere. The studio pros in Toto played on Thriller, and undoubtedly rock classics from Boz Scaggs to Steely Dan, meaning all that grooveology is lurking deep in “Africa.” Thomas Pynchon put the song in his latest novel Bleeding Edge, where a crew of start-up dot-commers belt it in a NYC karaoke bar on the eve of 9/11, except they think it goes, “I left my brains down in Africa.” It shows on TV from Stranger Things to South Park.Justin Timberlake and Jimmy Fallon sang it at Camp 안전놀이터. CBS chose to play it in their coverage of Nelson Mandela’s funeral, which even the Toto guys thought was somewhat insane. (Singer and co-writer David Paich released a record saying CBS should have used actual South African music instead, adding “We honor Nelson Mandela.”) Going to this song for authentic African flava is like obtaining a French lesson from Paris Hilton.
“Africa” hit Number One in February 1983 — it replaced Men at Work’s ode to Australia, “Down Under,” the only time in pop history two continents slugged it out for Number One. (Right after the band Asia had the best-selling album of 1982.) But “Down Under” is just a real song about a genuine place — Aussie bros kicking local slang to shout out Vegemite sandwiches. “Africa” is many different — a song about feeling homesick for nowhere. The singer is lost over time and place, yearning for a romance that never happened in a homeland he’s never seen. He doesn’t know anything about Africa, except it needs to be better compared to nightmare where he’s trapped right now. (You may even say he’s…frightened of the thing that he’s becoooome!) These days, all of us know how that feels. Could you ask for an improved summary of modern alienation than the usual yacht-rock song concerning the desert?